The Klondike Weekly, Dawson City, Yukon Territory

Yukon Indians and the Gold Rush

by Ken Spotswood

Posted on February 27, 1998

      With few exceptions, native people do not figure prominently in written accounts of the Klondike gold rush.
      As a race of self-sufficient people, however, it was almost their undoing as tens of thousands of 'civilized' people suddenly invaded their traditional homeland. Because of their greed for gold, the whites imposed their laws and languages, their religions and social customs.
      They brought new diseases against which the Indians had no immunities. They brought alcohol which helped them exploit native men and women. And they brought segregation and racial discrimination.
      Prior to European contact, the native population of this northern region was made up of several thousand people spread out in small camps and villages over hundreds of thousands of square miles.
      For centuries native trade patterns included travel through different mountain passes of the region, including the Chilkoot Pass. This coveted route had been the exclusive domain of coastal Tlingit people--the Chilkoots who guarded the pass, and their brother Chilkats from the western arm of Lynn Canal. In doing so they also controlled--and jealously guarded--access to the interior. As a result, they held a virtual trade monopoly with other native peoples of Alaska and the Yukon.
      The Chilkoots enjoyed and prospered as 'middlemen'. On one hand they dictated terms to the early explorers and white traders who wanted furs, and to the Southern Tutchone and Tagish people of the interior who were eager for European trade goods. Trade patterns also included the Han and Kutchin who occupied the regions to the north.
      Over centuries these trade expeditions had evolved into sophisticated trips to the interior, often involving as many as 100 people.
      For their part, the Southern Tutchone were skilled hunters who had a wealth of furs and tanned and untanned skins to trade. They had moose, caribou and sheep, as well as ground squirrels, snowshoe rabbits, beaver, lynx, marten and other small furbearers. They had raw copper, sinew and a yellow lichen that the Chilkats used to dye their blankets.
      In return, the Chilkats provided edible seaweed, cedar baskets, dentalium shell ornaments, slaves, European trade goods and the prized coastal delicacy--eulachon grease.
      Eulachon are small fish which are very rich in oil. The Chilkoots boiled and pressed the fish to extract the oil, which was highly valued as a food seasoning and preservative. It was one of their chief trading commodities. They packed so much of it over the mountains that the trails to the interior became known as 'grease trails'. European trade goods helped to ease the burden of daily life for native people. They included blankets, calico, kettles, axes, knives, traps, guns, muzzle loaders, shot powder, coffee, flour and tobacco. They also altered existing trade patterns. The Southern Tutchone, for example, traded their surplus European goods with their neighbours further in the interior.
      The system of lakes and streams along the Chilkoot Trail made water transportation an integral part of any journey to the interior. The Indians designed and built their own dugout canoes. Skin boats, usually made of moose hide, were also used.
      One early account describes a fleet of walrus hide boats, similar to umiaks, kept at the head of Lake Bennett. These were obtained from the Tlingit of Yakutat and carried coastal trading parties down the lake to Tagish villages.
      Native canoes, however, were of no use to the stampeders headed to the Klondike with a year's provisions in tow.
      The Chilkoot Indians were a dominant force in the region. They had effectively prevented any white men from going through the pass. In 1848 Hudson's Bay trader Robert Campbell established a trading post at Fort Selkirk, near the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly Rivers. In doing so he threatened the trade monopoly of the Chilkoot Indians of the coast with those in the interior.
      The Chilkoots didn't like the competition. They pillaged the post in 1852. Campbell and his men escaped with their lives. The fort was later burned.
      There was one notable exception to the Chilkoot domination of the coastal mountain route. In 1878, prospector George Holt was the first white man to make his way over the Chilkoot Pass--without the knowledge or consent of the Indians. He came out with a very small amount of gold, but word soon spread of his effort, and of promising finds by other prospectors who continued to trickle into the sub-arctic.
      By this time missionaries had also arrived in the territory and a process of segregation had begun. The missionaries wanted to keep the natives from drinking, gambling and carousing with non-native miners, fearing the natives would revert to their 'heathen' ways.
      In those days, missionaries rarely baptized Indians because it was felt they lacked sufficient knowledge of the ceremony. Catholic pressure on Anglican missions forced many clergymen to lower the standard of knowledge and understanding required for baptism. For the clergy, the 'rush for souls' became paramount.
      Most Indians lived far away from the mining camps, and the newcomers congregated in their own settlements. While many Indians chose to distance themselves from mining communities, others were lured there by liquor and the prospect of social and economic opportunities.
      In his book Best Left as Indians, historian Ken Coates notes:

Alcohol consumption during the pre-gold rush period was, for Natives and non-Natives alike, recreational. The Natives integrated alcohol into their potlatches and other celebrations, and alcohol became closely tied to sexual relations between Native women and non-Native men. Liaisons of the 'one-night-stand' variety often developed out of the interracial drinking party..."
      Coates goes on to point out that tolerance does not mean acceptance. "Non-native miners, who saw little wrong with a short-term romance with a Native woman, heaped scorn on men who 'descended' to live with the Indians."
      These men were called "squaw men", a derogatory term used throughout Canada and the U.S. Little did they know, however, that it would be a 'squaw man' named George Carmack who would trigger one of the biggest gold rushes in North America.
      From 1880 on the numbers of prospectors increased. They wanted easy access to the interior of the Yukon. The Chilkoots obliged and, for a while, made even more money as guides and packers. They charged a fee to pack the white men's grub and gear over the mountains.
      Initially the native packers charged 12 cents a pound to carry outfits the 27 miles across the pass to the upper end of Lake Lindeman.
      Under the watchful eyes of Canada's North-West Mounted Police at the summit, all stampeders headed for the gold fields were required to bring in a ton of provisions--each--or the equivalent of a year's supplies.
      The native packers were in demand from the start, and by the end of the first season of the rush their price had risen to 38 cents a pound for goods in conventional packages, but higher for lumber, stoves, pianos, trunks and any other odd-shaped or heavy merchandise. And sometimes the packers went on strike when they learned that someone else was paying more per pound.
      From all accounts the Chilkoot and Chilkat people were very strong physically. They were shrewd dealers and knew the trails well. But they had one major fault that delighted missionaries and confounded the stampeders: These Indians were devout Christians--they refused to work on Sundays. For the Klondikers who worshipped only gold, Sundays became do-it-yourself days.
      The rest of the week, however, they climbed into harnesses with loads of up to 200 pounds per man. Women and children carried about 75 pounds each.
      Except for trade expeditions, native people generally traveled lightly and quickly. The sight of so many newcomers struggling under the weight of so much baggage must have been a source of wonder and amusement to them, particularly white women in Victorian dress.
      Frances Gillis was a tall, slender and adventurous woman of 26 when she left Seattle for Dawson City in February, 1898. She was also unmarried. She and her travel companions had an unforgettable encounter with a group of native men at Lake Laberge:
      As we secured our boat and clambered out, a group of Indians who were selling fresh trout to the hungry gold seekers came up to us. They clustered around me, examined me silently and thoroughly, reached out dirty hands occasionally to touch my clothing. Then they held a brief consultation. Finally the chief spokesman of the group stepped forward and addressed my companions: 'Nice squaw. We like her. Which one of you does she belong to? We give you many fish, and even much money, if you leave her here with us.'
      The men, all dumbfounded by this strange offer, were completely tongue-tied in their confusion and embarrassment. Finally, Mr. Britton rose gallantly to the occasion. Stepping between the Indians and me he murmured nervously that I was his squaw, and not for sale. I, the 'fine squaw,' stood rooted to the spot, feeling more afraid than at any other time since leaving Seattle.
      Unfortunately, the Indians and their living habits were the cause of much derision by these new arrivals.
      Among them was New York journalist Tappan Adney who was sent to the Yukon in 1897 to record the events of the stampede and the gold fields of Dawson City, in stories and pictures.
      The men are short, heavy set, powerfully-built, broad and thick of chest, large of head, with almost Mongolian eyes and massive jaws, Adney wrote. Nearly all have stringy black mustaches that droop at the ends, and some have scant beards. Their colour is light brown.
      The women are hardly any of them good-looking, and have a habit of painting their faces a jet black or chocolate brown, and I have seen little girls who thus imitated their elder sisters and mothers.
      The face is rubbed with balsam, then with burned punk, and this is rubbed in with grease. They do this, I am told, for the same reason that their white sisters use paint and powder. They leave enough of their faces untouched about the chin, mouth and eyes to give them a hideous, repulsive expression...Indian fashion, dogs and children, men and women, crowd into their dirty abodes, which smell of spoiled fish.
      Face painting and tattooing were popular among the coastal Tlingit of Alaska. They decorated their faces for dances and potlatches with a combination of seal oil and soot. While the fragrance left much to be desired, it was effective protection in the summer months against sun and insects.
      It was also an effective disguise, which prompted Alaska governor Swineford to ban the practice because it hindered law enforcement and made offenders difficult to identify.
      As packers the native people made themselves indispensable. "Twenty or thirty Indians will take up packs and put a whole outfit over in two days," Adney wrote. However,
      They are not trustworthy, and are wholly unscrupulous. They do nothing even for each other without a price, and I have carefully noticed that they make no distinction between themselves and whites even for the same service.
      If one engages them at a certain price and someone offers them more, they lay down their packs and take up the new ones; or if on the trail they hear of a rise in the scale, they stop and strike for the higher wages. Some of them speak good English.
      Of all the Canadian and foreign correspondents who reported on the gold rush, Adney stands out as one of the few who bothered to write about native people--two short articles. The others were obsessed by the relentless pursuit of gold and the mining of it, the hardships of getting to and living in the Yukon, the excesses of those who struck it rich, and the folly of those who squandered their wealth.
      Before contact with whites, native people had little or no use for gold. They soon learned its value for the things that it, and silver, could buy. At one point the Indians at Dyea hoarded most of the gold and silver coins in circulation, which Adney noted:
      They are taking all the small change out of circulation. They come to the traders several times a day, making a trifling purchase to get change, and then store it away. The small change problem is indeed a serious one. There is not enough small currency to do business with. The gamblers and the Indians are getting it all.
      In spite of the racist overtones, native people played a role in the gold rush--as guides, packers or labourers who cut cordwood for the many riverboats. Non-native labourers earned between $6 and $10 a day. Indian men earned from $4 to $8 for the same work. Native women also earned money by making and selling mitts, hats, mukluks and other clothing.
      They were expert hunters and fishermen. Salmon was needed for dog food, especially in winter when dog teams were vital for transportation. There was enough moose and caribou for everyone, but with the sudden influx of thousands of people and noisy machinery, game retreated further into the wilderness and hunters had to work harder to get it. Natives earned additional income by either trading or selling meat and fish to the miners, and there are many accounts by stampeders and prospectors whose lives were saved with fresh meat or fish from the Indians in the dead of winter.
      Even as labourers, the opportunities for Indians didn't last long. Thousands of would-be miners continued to pour into the Klondike long after the gold-bearing creeks had been staked. Many arrived penniless, desperate for work, and they ultimately displaced native workers.
      For Yukon Indians, the gold rush changed everything. Before 1896, Indians outnumbered all others in the territory by about four to one. The 1901 census, taken two years after the height of the rush, showed a population of eight non-natives for every Indian.
      After the rush, the segregation of natives gradually gave way to outright discrimination. In her book I Married the Klondike, Laura Berton described the case of one young man, the son of a Dawson civil servant, who married a mixed-blood woman while his parents were out of town:
      She was a pretty little thing, bright and neat, and I think could have made him a good wife, but the parents were so shocked they would neither see nor speak with him. This attitude drove him from the town and back into the bush, where his life was spent among the Indians, hunting and cutting wood for a living.
      Ironically, the Canadian government's Indian Act only aggravated the problems. It had four goals--to promote native self-sufficiency, protect the Indians from the 'evils' of non-native society, to encourage conversion to Christianity, and assimilate the natives. Unfortunately, the government had no consideration for Indian customs and traditions.
      The reality was that Indian children were not welcome in white schools, and white people refused to share hospital wards with native patients.
      Gold fever, meanwhile, had made its way to Ottawa. A treaty with Yukon Indians was ruled out until the territory's mineral prospects could be further evaluated, and a national scandal erupted in 1898 with allegations of widespread corruption of government officials in Dawson City. The government clearly had other priorities.
      Ironically, 95 years before a Yukon land claims agreement was finalized, The Klondike Nugget addressed the issue with the following editorial on April 1, 1900:
      It will doubtless happen with these Indians as it has happened with every other aboriginal race that has come in contact with what we are pleased to term civilization. Civilization will ultimately wipe the Indians out of existence. This is the whole story in a nutshell, and it is apparent that the Indians themselves have a very well defined notion that such will prove to be the case. They see the land, which they considered their own, taken away from them without even their permission being asked. The game, upon which they have been accustomed to depend very largely for subsistence, is being driven back into the mountains, and when the game has all disappeared the Indians see nothing ahead for them but extinction.
      The case which Silas advances on behalf of his tribe is a strong one, and the points are remarkably well taken. Silas has a number of innate ideas of right and wrong which lead him to believe that there should be some law of compensation applicable in the case.
      Formerly the Indians owned all the ground, all the fish and all the game. Now they own nothing. Then they could do as they pleased, with no one to interfere with them. Now they are liable to arrest for any breach of the law, just as a white man.
      How they could lose all they once possessed and get nothing in return is something they can not comprehend. The case is worth consideration from the authorities. Whether or not the Indians possess any legal rights in the premises, there are certain moral obligations involved which should not be overlooked. If there is any danger of actual want among them, the matter should be promptly looked into and relief granted.
      The writing was on the wall. It took another 95 years to achieve it.

© 1998-2009 by Ken Spotswood

This article was provided by the Yukon Anniversaries Commission


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